One of the significant changes made by the Bankruptcy Code amendments that took effect in October 2005 was the imposition of severe restrictions on "key employee retention plans," known in the bankruptcy world as KERPs. In this post I'll discuss how several courts have handled these issues in the year and a half since the Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act of 2005, known as BAPCPA, became effective. The most recent decision, issued late last week by the Delaware Bankruptcy Court in the Nellson Nutraceutical case, gives debtors added flexibility when trying to craft plans consistent with these new restrictions.
Changes Aimed At Curbing KERPs. Prior to BAPCPA, KERPs were a very popular way of making sure that a company could retain its most important officers and employees to guide it through bankruptcy. Citing perceived abuses, however, Congress added language in BAPCPA that requires debtors to satisfy nearly impossible standards before courts would be permitted to approve payment of retention bonuses (or severance payments) as administrative claims to officers and other insiders of a bankrupt company. The restrictions apply only to insiders; no similar limitations have been placed on payment of retention bonuses and severance to non-insiders.
The New Law's High Hurdles. To give you a flavor of the restrictions BAPCPA added to Section 503(c) of the Bankruptcy Code, a debtor company must now prove the following before it can gain approval for payment of a retention bonus to an insider:
- the transfer or obligation is essential to retention of the person because the individual has a bona fide job offer from another business at the same or greater rate of compensation;
- the services provided by the person are essential to the survival of the business; and
- the amount of the transfer made to, or obligation incurred for the benefit of, the person is not greater than an amount equal to 10 times the amount of the mean transfer or obligation of a similar kind given to nonmanagement employees for any purpose during the calendar year in which the transfer is made or the obligation is incurred; or
- if no such similar transfers were made to, or obligations were incurred for the benefit of, such nonmanagement employees during such calendar year, the amount of the transfer or obligation is not greater than an amount equal to 25 percent of the amount of any similar transfer or obligation made to or incurred for the benefit of such insider for any purpose during the calendar year before the year in which such transfer is made or obligation is incurred.
The requirement of a bona fide job offer in particular has led some to observe that if an officer of a company in Chapter 11 really had such an offer he or she would probably just take it, mooting the entire retention issue. In any event, these provisions have had their desired effect. It is now rare to find a debtor proposing a KERP that seeks to make retention payments to officers or other insiders.
Debtors Opt For Plan B. Despite these restrictions, debtors still usually want to keep their key officers and may worry that they will leave for more stable companies absent some incentives to remain with the debtor. So what are debtors doing? Since October 2005, they have shifted gears and are proposing not retention plans but incentive plans instead. To date, only a few decisions, discussed below, have addressed what is necessary for an incentive plan to pass muster. In other instances, incentive plans have been approved with little or no opposition. Perhaps the earliest such approval came in May 2006 when Judge Burton R. Lifland approved one in the Calpine Corporation Chapter 11 case.
The Dana Corporation Case. The first significant contested plan motion came shortly after the Calpine incentive plan's approval. Dana Corporation, whose Chapter 11 case was also pending before Judge Lifland, filed a motion seeking approval of a plan similar to that approved in the Calpine case. After considering objections filed by various creditors and others, however, in September 2006 Judge Lifland refused to approve Dana Corporation's proposed plan, finding that it was a prohibited retention plan. For an excellent and entertaining discussion of the circumstances leading to denial of that first effort in the Dana Corporation case, including why the Calpine plan was approved while the first Dana plan was not, be sure to read Steve Jakubowski's detailed post on the Bankruptcy Litigation Blog.
A few months later, on Dana Corporation's second try, Judge Lifland approved the revised incentive plan. In his second ruling, he found that with certain modifications the debtor's revised proposals met the sound business judgment test required for approval. In addition, he ruled that the new plan incentivized the key officers "to produce and increase the value of the estate" and, because the benchmarks in the plan were difficult targets to reach and not easy "lay-ups," the proposal was an actual incentive plan and not a retention plan in disguise.
Evaluating Incentive Plans. In evaluating whether the Dana plan represented the exercise of sound business judgment, Judge Lifland considered the following factors:
- Is there a reasonable relationship between the plan proposed and the results to be obtained, i.e., will the key employee stay for as long as it takes for the debtor to reorganize or market its assets, or, in the case of a performance incentive, is the plan calculated to achieve the desired performance? (emphasis added)
- Is the cost of the plan reasonable in the context of the debtor's assets, liabilities and earning potential?
- Is the scope of the plan fair and reasonable; does it apply to all employees; does it discriminate unfairly?
- Is the plan or proposal consistent with industry standards?
- What were the due diligence efforts of the debtor in investigating the need for a plan; analyzing which key employees need to be incentivized; what is available; what is generally applicable in a particular industry?
- Did the debtor receive independent counsel in performing due diligence and in creating and authorizing the incentive compensation?
These factors provide useful guidance not only to bankruptcy courts but also to boards of directors of financially troubled companies, whether in or out of bankruptcy, when considering proposals for retention or incentive plans.
The Global Home Products Decision. In March 2007, Judge Kevin Gross of the Delaware Bankruptcy Court approved two incentive plans in the Global Home Products case. In that decision, as the Delaware Business Bankruptcy Report described here, the court followed the analysis Judge Lifland used in the Dana Corporation case and approved the two incentive plans. Specifically, Judge Gross found that the plans were true incentive plans, which he called "pay for value" plans and were not KERPs, or "pay to stay" plans. For this reason, Judge Gross evaluated the plans under the business judgment standard of Section 363 of the Bankruptcy Code, holding that the strict Section 503(c) limitations simply did not apply.
The Nellson Nutraceutical Decision. On May 24, 2007, Judge Christopher S. Sontchi of the Delaware Bankruptcy Court issued a decision in the Nellson Nutraceutical Chapter 11 case approving revisions to a previously-approved incentive plan. There, the debtors' first incentive plan provided for certain performance milestones based on target levels of EBITDA, or earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization. Unfortunately, the debtors did not achieve those EBITDA milestones and sought to lower them to align with what they considered to be more realistic performance goals. After receiving testimony that the debtors had made similar reductions in bonus targets in the past, Judge Sontchi concluded that the debtors' current proposal was in the ordinary course of business and involved a good faith business judgment.
On the issue of whether Section 503(c)'s retention payment restrictions applied, Judge Sontchi found that the lowering of the incentive plan milestones did not turn the plans into retention plans. He held that if the primary purpose of a plan is to incentivize insiders and other employees, rather than merely retain them, it remains an incentive plan:
Under the facts of this case, although the modification of the 2006 bonus program has some retentive effect, it is for the primary purpose of motivating employees and, thus, the limitations of section 503(c)(1) are not applicable.
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The [United States Trustee] argues with some force that if an incentive plan is based on achievement of EBITDA targets and those targets are not achieved, yet the bonus is still received, that the plan cannot be an incentive plan but must, in fact, be solely a retention plan.
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While the Court agrees that the payment of bonuses under the modified 2006 [plan] has some retentive effect, the Court disagrees with the [United States Trustee's] argument that its sole or primary purpose is retention. Consistent with the Debtors’ pre-petition practice, the 2006 [plan] must be considered as a whole. It consists of two parts: the establishment of 'aspirational goals' in the early part of the year; and a review at the end of the year to consider whether those goals have been met and, if not, why. In this case, the Debtors did just that and determined that the 2006 [plan] served its purpose by motivating the employees to do a 'great job' in connection with the matters that those employees could reasonably be expected to influence. As such, the Debtors seek to award bonuses at a reduced level to compensate the employees for their success (albeit somewhat limited) in 2006 and to motivate the employees in 2007.
Finally, Judge Sontchi held that Section 503(c)(3)'s additional limitations, which among other things prohibit transfers to insiders that are "outside of the ordinary course of business and not justified by the facts and circumstances of the case," by its terms apply only to payments outside of the ordinary course of business. Given his earlier holding that the debtors' plans and their modifications were made in the ordinary course of business, Judge Sontchi concluded that Section 503(c)(3)'s requirements did not apply at all.
Conclusion. BAPCPA has effectively ended the use of KERPs for officers and other insiders of a debtor. However, more than a year and a half after BAPCPA became effective, bankruptcy courts in New York and Delaware, and perhaps elsewhere, are willing to approve incentive plans for insiders. The Nellson Nutraceutical decision goes further and, in the right circumstances, will allow the incentive plan's performance milestones themselves to be lowered without jeopardizing the "incentive" character of the plan. This area of the law is plainly evolving, so stay tuned for more developments.